Evanston Alderman Lionel Jean-Baptiste, 2nd Ward, has been appointed to fill a vacancy on the Cook County Circuit Court.

The state supreme court issued an order Wednesday appointing Jean-Baptiste to fill the vacancy on the ninth subcircuit created by the death of Judge Gerald C. Bender.

Jean-Baptiste’s appointment is effective March 4. The appointment ends in December 2012, which means Jean-Baptiste would have to run for election to the position next year.

Evanston Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl will have to appoint a replacement for Jean-Baptiste to fill the remainder of his current term as alderman, which runs through April 2013.

Jean-Baptiste says he plans to announce his resignation as alderman at Monday night’s City Council meeting and complete his service on the council at the following meeting, Feb. 28.

He said he hopes to confer with Tisdahl soon about possible successors.

Jean-Baptiste says that as a new judge he’ll initially be assigned to hear traffic cases. “They don’t want you do anything that has too much of an impact on people’s lives to start with,” he said.

He said new judges generally move up from there to handle small claims cases.

Jean-Baptiste said he’s always wanted to be an attorney, but had only recently concluded that serving as a judge might be part of his career plans. He said that in recent months he’d conferred with state Supreme Court Justice Charles Freeman about the possibility.

He said he received a call in mid-December about the opening and went through an extensive review process including evaluation by local bar associations before the Supreme Court made the appointment.

Jean-Baptiste won 85 percent of the vote in his first race for the City Council in 2001 against community activist Betty Sue Ester.

He had the backing of the retiring long-time incumbent, Dennis Drummer, and of Mayor Lorraine Morton, and ran on a platform favoring both affordable housing and economic development.

But he faced a tougher campaign in 2005 when he was bumped from the ballot after the city electoral board decided his nominating petition sheets didn’t sufficiently specify the office he was running for, because they said just “2nd Ward,” not “2nd Ward Alderman.”

Despite that setback he went on to win election as a write-in candidate with nearly two-thirds of the vote, raising and spending over $23,000 on the effort, believed to be a record for an aldermanic race in Evanston, and more than four times the amount raised by his first-time challenger, librarian Christopher Stewart, who’s now president of the city’s library board.

Jean-Baptiste ran unopposed for re-election in 2009.

The alderman, whose family emigrated from Haiti, arrived in Evanston with them in 1964 and is a 1970 graduate of Evanston Township High School where he was student government president.

He graduated from Princeton University in 1974 as a political science major and, after spending a decade in New York, he returned to Evanston in 1984. He earned his law degree from Chicago-Kent College of Law in 1990, and got his start in community activism here working with the Canal Park Neighbors

Since last year’s earthquake in Haiti, Jean-Baptiste has been active in organizing local relief efforts for the island nation.

Jean-Baptiste is the second Evanston alderman to become a circuit court judge recently. Former 4th Ward alderman Steve Bernstein was elected last year to the ninth subcircuit.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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  1. Fitting appointment

    How fitting that a man who has fought for justice all of his life and who has been an advocate of justice for others would be appointed to the judiciary.   He will no doubt serve on the bench with the same integrity and passion that he served the city and the second ward.   

  2. Here comes “the judge”

    Congratuations cousin Judge Lionel! Your family is very proud of you. 

  3. Congratulations!

    I do not know what you Have done before; But one Haitian gets the (honor) to the position, I believe you deserve it. That lets Haitians know we can do better and do what we should for our country to move up from where it is now.

    Congratulations again!

    Jean Eddy Joachim.

  4. Mesi.

    Thank you on behalf of the Haitian community of the Midwest. You made us all proud and know that you are an idol for all of us specially the young and educated Haitian professionals. Keep doing the great philanthropist and community building work you have been dedicated to for years.

    Mesi, tout ayisyen Chicago e patou nan Etazini fye de ou. Nou tout ap selebre.

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